One of the queer highlights at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where writer-director Filippo Meneghetti’s debut narrative feature had its world premiere, Two of Us (Deux) went on to a successful international festival run including playing the BFI London Film Festival and Outfest, and winning the Outstanding First Feature Award at last year’s Frameline. Filled with tension, emotion, and humour the film centres on two retired women, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), who have been in love for decades. Madeleine has kept their romance secret from her adult children who believe their widowed mother and Nina are simply neighbours sharing the top floor of their apartment building. As the women dream of a new life together in Rome, Nina moves freely from between her own apartment and Madeleine’s until unforeseen events see Nina abruptly shut out. Beautifully shot and featuring two stunning lead performances, Two of Us (Deux) is France’s official submission for Best International Feature Film for this year’s Academy Awards and this week picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language.
Ahead of the release of Two of Us (Deux) in US theaters and on demand on Friday February 5th, The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann editor had an exclusive conversation with Filippo Meneghetti about the impact he hopes the film might have on global audiences to be more open minded about same sex relationships (there were anti-equality protests happening in Paris when he was writing the movie), and Barbara Sukowa about creating the intimate on screen relationship with her co-star Martine Chevallier, and working with legendary director Rainer Werner Fassbinder when she starred in 1981’s Lola.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I was lucky enough to be at the film’s world premiere at TIFF and the reaction from the audience was incredible, especially to those really tense moments.
Filippo Meneghetti: “I’m glad you were there, that was such a wonderful screening! I miss cinema so much. I was recently on the jury of the Premiers Plans Film Festival and had the chance to go to a special screening that they put on just for us and it felt like such a privilege and it was moving to be in a real cinema again, it’s such a different experience.”
So it all started with the screenplay, what was the inspiration behind it and how important was it to you to collaborate with the a female co-writer, Malysone Bovorasmy, given that the film’s major characters are all women?
Filippo Meneghetti: “Well, there are so many things that went into deciding to make this particular film, but the starting point for me was that in my teenage years I had two people that were very important to me, who are still very important to me. They are the people that passed on to me my passion for cinema. I’m a filmmaker today, so clearly it meant a lot to me. Back in the 1990s they’d lend me video cassettes of wonderful films by all of the best directors and I really discovered my love for film. I come from a family where nobody is involved in the arts or culture, so having them in my life really opened something in my mind at that time. I was a difficult kid too, I wasn’t an uneasy teenager. So that was something that was really helpful in my life.”
Were they a lesbian couple?
“Yes, they were.”
Were they living together secretly like the characters in Two of Us?
“The story of the film is made up, it’s invented. It’s not directly inspired by their story because actually for one of them it was much more difficult than the story that the film depicts. In fact, if I had told her story people wouldn’t have believed it, but I saw it with my own eyes. At that time I was so moved, so struck by what happened to them and so I always felt that if one day I had the possibility to reach an audience that I would love to give an homage to them, to create something as a gesture to them in order to give something back. I had this in mind for years but I was trying to find the right angle to tell it. Ultimately what I do is make images and so I am always hunting for metaphors in my life, to find a way to show something that will tell the audience what is happening inside the character.”
“One day I was visiting a friend in Verona—which is oddly Romeo and Juliet town, so it makes sense as a place for a love story—and his neighbours who had became widows pretty much at the same time wanted to keep each other company so lived one in front of the other with a landing between them that is shared with their two front doors always open, like like Nina and Madeleine in the film. I was very curious and one day I heard the two of them talking on their landing and I went upstairs and was peeping a little bit, and it suddenly clicked and I thought, that’s an everyday and simple metaphor to tell the story I want to tell; the story of exclusion and of self-censorship. This image of the door that is always open and then is always shut. It is a simple idea and I like simple ideas, I think that they are the most difficult thing to find, so if I get a simple idea that works then I cherish it. After that, I started to write the script with my co-writer, Malysone Bovorasmy, and it was very important for me to have her beside me because, as you said, it is a film about women, the four lead characters are women. There was a sensibility that I needed, and aside from the talent of my co-writer also the conversations that we had about the film were very important. It was five years writing, so there are so many things that happen in your own lives that come to nourish the film and to nourish the story, and that collaboration between us was so important and she was there with me on set too.”
It always amazes me how rare films like Two of Us featuring older female central characters are because for one thing the characters are likely to be fascinating, characters with rich life experiences, and of course you get to cast wonderful actors. Barbara, how rare is it that these kinds of roles come along and what was the draw for you of this one?
Barbara Sukowa: “Lately I think there are more roles for older women, especially in TV, but there was definitely a long time when that wasn’t the case though. When people, especially in America, discovered all that beauty stuff everybody just wanted to see young, beautiful people, but now I’m quite astonished that I actually see a lot of interest from younger people in older people. I think it’s because on a daily basis they’ve been fed images of all these young, hip, beautiful things and that must be quite exhausting and must put a big pressure on young people, especially young women. So if they see older women who are still alive, and have a face full of wrinkles, like in our film, then I think that maybe gives them a little bit of relief, knowing that there is a life after beauty. I think it’s only more recently that this has started happening though.”
Could you tell us about creating the really beautiful onscreen relationship with Martine Chevallier. I loved the physicality between them, we see them kissing right at the very beginning, and dancing of course, it’s very romantic.
Barbara Sukowa: “Well, I was lucky that I had a really good script at hand and I really liked the dialogue, so that made it easy. Obviously Filippo and I spoke before the shoot, which I like to do, I like to talk a lot before the actual shooting starts to create images around the character, to think of the biography, and consider the other characters in the script. Then when the shooting starts, I feel like I weave my way through to the set and then I’m more interested in the actual physical and sensual experience of being present with my eyes, my nose, my hands, to just experience the space and especially of course, my acting partners, in this case Martine. We talked beforehand a little bit and we had a dinner out together, Martine, Filippo and I, and since we knew that we did not have a lot of rehearsal we opened up to each other very much, very quickly, which you normally don’t do when you meet somebody for the first time. We told each other about our love life and our heartbreaks and our relationships and about sex and ageing. We tried to cover it all in one dinner and then of course continued during the shooting when we had breaks to talk about these things. A lot of the work that you do as an actor to create the character you can’t really pin it down. Film is a directors’ medium, so if you see an element that really intrigues you, so many people’s work is involved in it. It’s mainly the director, but then also how it’s edited, the lighting, the costumes, there are so many things that come together, and as an actor you’re kind of a small part and you don’t make as many decisions as people might think.”
Filippo, let’s talk a bit about the visual language of the film. You use a lot of close-ups on the women’s faces which I love, but one moment that really struck me was the scene where Martine’s character Madeleine is in the laundromat, and we see the conversation that’s happening on the street behind her, with Barbara’s character Nina finding out something major, then later when Madeline and Nina are reunited there’s that beautiful shot through the glass of them in the care home.
Filippo Meneghetti: “In terms of the close-ups, I wanted to say something about the age of the characters which is important because, as Barbara rightly said, young people who might be exhausted by this obsession with beauty and perfection of the body can see it. That was one of the reasons that I made the film. I really believe that society is obsessed with youth and beauty and I have a huge problem with that and as a filmmaker I feel the responsibility of the images that I make. So I can complain about it of course, which I do, but also since I’m a filmmaker I can try to make images that represent another kind of body, which is by the way beautiful. That was one of the most important things to me. During the financing there were questions about the ages of the characters and it wasn’t easy to insist on older characters, but that was my point. I mean, you can be beautiful and charming, as Barbara and Martine are in the film without surgery or whatever. It’s just another model of beauty and I want to show that, I needed to show that as a filmmaker. All the signs of time are on their faces, their emotions, and their stories; every wrinkle tells a story and the audience relates to it and feels for it and is touched by it. So that’s my job. Then you have two great actresses so I used the close-ups when needed because I’d been handed this gift of their talent so I had to do something with it, right? It was important to shoot their bodies, to shoot their faces; age is what is beautiful about it, so that’s why I used all of the close-ups.”
“In terms of the distancing, that was the other side of it. My cinematographer Aurélien Marra and I had a lot of talks about how we could create distance, which creates room for the audience to experience the film, room for the audience to gather their own emotions. I didn’t want to push emotions towards the audience, especially because this film could have been a melodrama. I love to cook and I believe that filmmaking is it is very close to cooking. If you bake a cake and you put too many things in it, then you’re not going to be able to taste anything anymore, it’s just going be disgusting. It doesn’t work. So that idea of distancing, and also using a dramatic irony, that’s also very useful because my job is to engage the audience in something, to bring the audience with me. I need to keep them active. Everybody knows what is going on outside the window, everybody can understand that, but they need to work a little bit to get it. They don’t need the dialogue to know what’s happening. Economy is a very important word in filmmaking, doing as much as you can with as little as you can, you’ve got to be aware of it and it’s a very interesting thing to work on.”
During the time that you were writing the screenplay there were some big protests going on in France against same sex marriage, and I know that you got a letter from someone who told you that seeing the film changed their mind on the subject. It’s also important in terms of representation that this beautiful love story about two women is France’s official submission for the Oscars this year.
Filippo Meneghetti: “I am so grateful for that because I make films to touch an audience and the wider the audience I can reach the more chance that there might be some slight change in some people’s perspective on the world and on same sex relationships. If that happens then I’m so glad because the seven years it took to make this film will make sense.”
Barbara, I can’t let you go without asking you about working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, on stage, television and on film, starring as the title role in 1981’s Lola. That was quite early on in your career, what did you take from that experience?
Barbara Sukowa: “Yeah, I definitely did take something from it, which for me personally was very important. It really put me on the map as an actor and out of it came my relationship with Margarethe von Trotta, who had also worked with Fassbinder, and with whom I subsequently made seven films. It was a very different time back then, the whole production situation, the whole shooting situation, was different. Fassbinder worked extremely quickly. He very rarely did more than one take and he never did more than two takes, unless a thunderstorm came and blew away the set, something major like that! So as an actor you only had one chance, so that trained you to really be there right away and to get there quickly. That was the the first time that I did movies, which was very different from theatre where you have six weeks to rehearse and to find your emotion and find your situation, whereas with Fassbinder making films you have to be there like, boom, in the blink of an eye basically. So that was one thing that I took with me from working with him, but although he worked so quickly in a way we had more time. I remember when I met Filippo he said, ‘Oh, when we shoot I love to cook so we’re going to have lots of dinners together.’ We did not have one dinner together when he was cooking the whole time that we were shooting!”
Filippo Meneghetti: “I still owe you a risotto Barbara, you’re right!”
Barbara Sukowa: “I know, you do! But at the time when I was shooting with Fassbinder we went almost every night to a restaurant or somebody was cooking. It was just not that stressed and the producer came sometimes and brought us a big spread for lunch. Sometimes Fassbinder ended early because he wanted to see a football game on TV. We didn’t have TiVo then, you know! It was definitely less stressful back then. Also, like Filippo was just saying that he had to work for seven years to get the financing, but at the point when I was working with Fassbinder he got financing easily. It was pretty low budget, but at that point there was money for cinema.”
It’s also impressive to me looking back that Fassbinder was so open about who he was in terms of his sexuality and with the films that he made that had queer characters in them.
Barbara Sukowa: “In the acting and theatre world in Germany that was never really a problem. I’ve worked with a lot of gay actors and I have played some really great love scenes with them. One of my favourite acting partners with whom I played the most erotic scenes was gay, that was in the theatre. I worked with Fassbinder for the first time in the theatre, and most theatres at that time put on plays, opera, and ballet and there were a lot of gay people, although at the time there was still Paragraph 175 in Germany where you could be imprisoned for being gay, so it was sort of an open secret.”
By James Kleinmann
Two of Us (Deux) is in theaters and on demand from Friday February 5th 2021, for details on how to see the film head to the official website.